Demas Nwoko Awarded Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement

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The organizers of the Eighteenth Venice Architecture Biennale have bestowed the Nigerian-born architect, designer, and artist Demas Nwoko the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Nwoko was in the vanguard of Nigeria’s modern art movement and is known for highly modern architecture that draws on traditional African designs. He will be honored at a ceremony to take place May 20 at Ca’Giustinian, the Biennale’s headquarters.

Born in the rural hamlet of Idumuje Ugboko, Nigeria, in 1935, Nwoko was inspired as a youth by local residences and by the palace of Obi (King) Nwoko II, his grandfather, who designed the structure himself. Nwoko studied art at the College of Art, Science and Technology in Zaria from 1957 to 1961. While there, he and fellow students Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Simon Okeke, among others, formed the Zaria Art Society. Known as the Zaria Rebels, its members advocated for “natural synthesis,” as Uche Okeke termed the melding of European art with African themes. After a year spent studying theater architecture and fresco painting at the Centre Français du Théâtre in Paris, Nwoko returned to Nigeria, where he became a lecturer at the newly minted drama school at the University of Ibadan. With his old comrades from the Zaria Art Society, he helped established spaces such as the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, which fostered progressive thought in relation to aesthetics, art, and architecture, and which promoted political independence.

In the late 1960s, Nwoko, who had no formal architectural training, founded the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, and began his architectural work. He received his first commission, to build the complex for the Dominican Institute in Ibadan, in 1970. Among his other well know structures are the Akenzua Cultural Center in Benin, which incorporates Greek and Japanese Kabuki designs. Later in the 1970s, he established the now-shuttered New Culture Magazine, which covered contemporary art and culture.

“One of the central themes of the Eighteenth International Architecture Exhibition is an approach to architecture as an ‘expanded’ field of endeavors, encompassing both the material and immaterial worlds; a space in which ideas are as important as artifacts, particularly in the service of what is yet to come,” said Biennale curator Lesley Lokko. “With all of its emphasis on the future, however, it seems entirely fitting that the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement should be awarded to someone whose material works span the past seventy years, but whose immaterial legacy—approach, ideas, ethos—is still in the process of being evaluated, understood and celebrated.”


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